I’ve read books and watched videos from many “expert” retriever trainers. They approach the development and growth of retrievers in different strategies, drills, techniques, and routines. I can’t say that I do only what Mike Lardy teaches, or only what Bill Hillmann does, or only what I read about from Evan Graham (or many other sources). When I read or watch (study) I always reflect back to my dog… what have I seen or read that applies to my training? What can I take away from this and use in my work with my dog? I’ve developed my own way of thinking about training and developing a finished retriever.
I’ve come to believe in a rather simple philosophy of retriever work. Every mark or blind has 3 elements:
No element is more or less important than any other. They are all 3 equally important.
The beginning of a mark involves what happens within a 4-foot radius circle around the handler. This part of a retrieve is all about control and obedience. It starts from when you begin approaching the point of origin (aka the line) where the mark(s) will be seen by the dog. From when you take your dog out of the car until they reach the line control and obedience are required. The dog needs to be under control and approaching at heel with the handler. Once arriving at the line, the dog calmly and silently sits at heel to the handler, and looks out in the direction the handler has faced. When the handler has called for the bird(s), the dog remains steady and focuses on the mark(s) without barking or moving. The handler then releases the dog to go pick up the mark. While this sounds easy and simple, it is very difficult, and when not executed correctly it’s not likely that good things will follow.
Like the beginning of a mark, the beginning of a blind is all about control. [Note: Blinds are not for beginning level dogs. It takes a significant amount of special development and training to work as a handler/dog team on blind retrieves]. On a blind, the beginning is the same, except the handler is prompting/cuing the dog that there is something out there that the dog did not see fall to the ground. The handler now must pay close attention to where the dog is looking out, and cue the dog adjusting this alignment of where the dog is looking to where the dog will run in the blind retrieve. The dog’s spine and head must be in alignment with where the handler wants the dog to go. When the handler releases the dog, we move into the second part of a retrieve, the middle. A great example of this can be seen in the Retriever Nation video on the Ladder Blind Drill.
Next is the “sexy” part, the middle. Here’s where all the fun is. When a single, double, or triple mark is thrown we send dogs out to pick these birds up one at a time. There are an infinite number of factors and concepts that can be included in marks on land, water, or a combination of land and water. This is where many amateur trainers fall into a “trap”. If a dog is “naughty” at the line, do not let them get rewarded by sending them on a mark or blind. Go back and start again and hold your dog to this standard, even if that means putting your dog back in the truck and starting again. Expect obedience and control. If the standard set for the beginning of a mark is relaxed and lowered so the focus can be on the middle of the retrieve. you’ve just taught your dog how to be naughty. How do you get the steadiness and focus back when you’ve let it slip in training? Sorry. The toothpaste is out of the tube, and you’re not going to put it back.
Everything in blind retrieves is all about control (Note: As mentioned earlier, blinds are not for beginning dogs or handlers. They take a significant amount of training and development to even run simple basic blinds). The middle of a blind, that’s the fun part when a dog will follow a handler’s hand, whistle, and verbal signals to retrieve a blind. As in marks, there are an infinite number of factors and concepts that can be included in setting up and running a blind. However, in the middle of blinds the handler must be the one in control of where the dog is going. If the dog shifts gears from “blind mode” (dog follows directions of the handler) to “hunt mode” (dog hunts independently without following directions of the handler), you now have a significant problem. As all handlers learn, distance erodes control. The further away a dog gets from the handler, the more likely it will be that the handler has less control over the retriever.
The ending of marks and blinds involves a dog promptly returning to the line at heel to deliver the bird to hand. There are many issues that can occur here to cause problems. Some dogs will wander around with the bird or parade around the handler not coming into heel. You may see dogs dropping birds repeatedly on the way in or dropping birds and not delivering to hand. Some dogs “mouth” birds, chomping on them before delivering. Other dogs are “sticky”, holding onto birds and not wanting to give them up to the handler. The extreme case of this is “freezing”, not giving the bird up at all. Another common problem is dogs that are not obedient after the retrieve is done. Instead of sitting calmly to deliver a bird, and exiting at heel to the handler, they are running around out of control.
As an amateur trainer (a DIY person) hold your dog to a high standard at the beginning and end of every retrieve. If you’ve seen your dog struggling to reach this standard, go back and isolate these basic skills in drills and practice. Do not reward naughty behavior with getting a bird. That’s teaching the wrong lesson. This process will not be fun for you. It will involve plenty of repetition of fundamental obedience, but to eventually build a dog to the finished retriever level you must master teaching all three parts of a retrieve. There are no shortcuts.
About Paul: Paul Agranoff is a member of Team Kinetic, an avid hunter and Retriever trainer, and the Central Region Director for the North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA). You can view his full bio on his Team Kinetic page.